Comment, Feminism

It’s Hard Out Here for a Feminist: The Trouble with Public Feminist Discourse

The world of feminism is a hostile place. Paying attention to any public feminist statements will show you this: slip up and be prepared to pay for it.

It makes sense that this kind of thinking exists with feminism. It’s an ideology which requires you to be hypersensitive to a world that has been distorted and skewed, which inevitably results in the same critical inclination permeating everything, including feminist thought. A New Statesman event I attended at Easter this year was my first introduction to this crushingly harsh world. The event was great; thought provoking, affordable. Interesting issues were discussed, and there was a tacit smugness when the word ‘cis’ was mentioned and no one had to explain its meaning. However, immediately after the event, an influx of criticism appeared about it on Twitter for not being inclusive enough.

If you’re going to get tokenistic about it, I think the NS were clear in the attempts they made to be inclusive; they had a trans writer, a black writer and someone on the panel who was over 30, as well as a few other mainstream feminist voices. It sounds so painfully reductive to list people based on which ‘category of oppression’ they fulfill, but this is what the criticism of the debate provoked – justifying oneself by being reductive. ‘Why wasn’t there a man?’ ‘Why wasn’t there a disabled person?’ came resounding out of Twitter, biting back at any positive reaction to a debate.

To actively endorse the argument I am currently making, I will now be diplomatic and cover my own back. No, we shouldn’t just settle, because no, we’re not post-ableism and we’re not post-feminism and we’re not post- many things really, and there are still a lot of issues to overcome. Yet when the discourse of criticism overshadows the message of feminism, are we reducing the space for any constructive consequences? Criticism should be used for improvement, not to silence ideas.

Lily Allen’s video ‘Hard Out Here’ is a great example of this, both in the way it works well to draw our attention to issues in feminism, but also how it garnered vitriolic, unhelpful criticism in a way that overshadowed some pretty successful elements. To sum up basically the last 3 week’s work of every feminist writer ever: Yay! A Feminist Music Video. Boo! It’s racist.

On the one hand, the video functions as a great example of how feminism has worked historically for white, middle class women. I, as a one of those white middle class feminists, don’t immediately see why the video is racist. Considering when I watch the video I don’t spot the issues, because I’m not as hyper-sensitive to racial issues in the way I am to feminist issues, I just get the positive messages. This, if anything, is just testament to how white feminists are a bit shit at spotting racial issues. Susanne Moore makes this statement much more concisely in an article she wrote for The Guardian:

‘Racism works precisely by denying the presence of race. The privilege is to not notice it.’

Lily Allen’s twitter response made it clear that she personally believes it had nothing to do with race, but to quote another relatively reliable feminist source, Jezebel,  ‘Lily Allen doesn’t get to decided if her video has a race problem’. If I’ve learned anything about trying to endorse intersectional feminism, neither do I.

However, one thing I do think is legitimate to comment on is how we

look at feminism in light of this. I’ve read so many pieces recently that have now decided to write off feminism as some collection of closed-minded privileged white girls celebrating how they went a week without shaving their armpits whilst eating macaroons off their battered copies of The Second Sex. Feminism doesn’t just end when it trips up, but gosh do people love to attack anyone who makes a committed feminist statement.

To quote one –

‘That Lily Allen video is a hot mess and I can already hear the resounding clatter of the liberal white feminists as they fall over themselves to talk about how incisive and right-on it is’

Criticism like this is prevalent and unhelpful. The dismissive attitude to any ‘white’ voice contributing to a debate would be as bad a delegitimising a male voice in a debate about feminism. Check your privilege – sure – but also don’t shut voices out because of a physical attribute like the colour of your skin. If someone is blatantly wrong, let them express that view and then understand why it’s wrong, as opposed to internalise it and allow it to go uncriticised, because an environment has been created where they are silenced.

Perhaps this opinion is rooted in the fact that I am basically the main demographic for contemporary feminist writing, but I do feel feminism can adapt to be more inclusive, improve itself and overcome mistakes made in the past. Lily Allen or the NS feminists aren’t the be all and end all of feminist discourse, and mistakes made shouldn’t cause the movement to be written off as some racist ignorant collective. If a video is created that only allows us to draw attention to our own prejudices, we should use it as a constructive tool to overcome those issues, and not to dismissively mischaracterise a movement that has done a lot of good for a lot of people.

By Ruby Lott-Lavigna

Originally Published for The Moose in November 2013

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Comment, Education, Politics

Norwegian Egalitarianism is a Detriment to the Education System

Norway’s egalitarian attitude to most things has rarely been viewed in a negative light. The national insistence upon democracy and equality (although at times irritatingly self-congratulatory) is an inspiring sentiment for a country. Especially, for a rich one – the Norwegians could have just hoarded all the oil money and run off into the Norwegian woods eating pølse and vaffler, whilst refusing to help any struggling minorities. Yet they didn’t, and although the new government may be posing a threat to this attitude, Norway has created one of the largest welfare systems in the world. Even as someone coming from a relatively liberal place like England, the rhetoric around welfare is refreshing.

Inevitably, this attitude manifests itself within other social areas of Norway, particularly its education system. Whilst the Norwegian government has plenty to spend on creating the best education system possible (if the marble pillars outside the library are testament to anything), the University of Oslo, the biggest university in Norway, is only rated 185th in the world by The Times Higher Education. Norway has the tools, not to mention the money, to become one of the best in the world, but it’s not. If employing the best academics and offering research grants is doable, then where exactly is Norway going wrong?

The attitude to learning, particularly when it comes to the humanities, is a problem. In a society set up to benefit the largest number of people rather than the privileged few, entry into university is undemanding. Although this system may be best for a society with education inequality lower down (see England’s unforgivable perpetualisation of the private school system), Norway’s school system is equal enough to allow it to be more selective when it comes to university education.

At the risk of making even more generalising statements about the Norwegian community, their total lack of competitiveness bodes badly for an education system that needs people to aspire and fight for the best they can achieve. Students are reticent to argue in order to avoid conflicting in their views. Unfortunately for a subject like English Literature or History that requires frequent critical analyses, often at the expense of fellow students, this attitude creates a fruitless environment for work.

Indeed, the University of Oslo even struggles to find teachers for its humanities department. A conversation with a masters student exposed the sheer desperation of the Norwegian system, after he has been employed to teach irrespective of his perhaps inexperience in the subject. After all, he has only been studying English for 4 years, only one year more than some of the students in the class. The informal nature of employing staff who are not quite up to scratch, and the desperation that has lead UiO to be put in this position must say something about the education system. What exactly is to blame for the dire lack of teaching staff in certain departments?

It is truth universally acknowledged that teaching can be irrevocably dull if the students aren’t interested. Teaching is a fulfilling career, but only if you are around students who want to learn, and with this fact we have highlighted one of the painful truths about the Norwegian education system: whilst more demanding subjects like medicine or law may draw more ambitions students (as they are more difficult to gain entry to at UiO), subjects like English or History are full of clever Norwegian who aren’t fulfilling their potential, because of a cultural reluctance to challenge and engage. So academics don’t want to come and teach. Compared to the English University system, the system it is less demanding, with fewer students willing to take risks and contribute in class.

Norway’s total defiance towards creating a combative environment in all areas of Norwegian culture is admirable but flawed. This egalitarian attitude to learning means although many are able to have a higher education, the standard is low. Students need to fight the Nordic urge for everyone to be equal when it comes to education, as the classroom is a place of critical thinking, not ignorant equality.

By Ruby Lott-Lavigna

Originally published for The Moose in October 2013

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